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Bring Back the Handshake

Bring Back the Handshake
January 9, 2006

Comrade of all who shake hands and welcome to drink and meat,
A learner with the simplest, a teacher of the thougtfullest....                                                                                               --Walt Whitman

Academia is my hometown. I was raised to believe in its fundamental fairness. And since I am lucky enough to have landed a good, tenure-track, first job, and young enough that earlier generations of women fought the real battles for me, I had never really questioned that faith. The academic men I have known from childhood through my Ph.D., as family friends and as teachers, have with only one exception taken me seriously. I never had a male teacher tell me, as one friend was told, that women should make babies instead of going to graduate school. Since I am in the humanities, I was never openly mocked in class, as a woman engineering student I taught a few years ago was. No female professor told me, as one told a colleague, that women had to choose between family and an academic career. The only male teacher who ever kissed me also encouraged my scholarship. So I have never felt that I was discriminated against on the basis of my gender.

But at my new job I have just completed two hours of required online training about how to prevent harassment on the basis of race, gender, religion,  sexual orientation, etc., and as a result have been thinking over my experiences. Despite the draconian strictures imposed by the training course, I have colleagues of both sexes who have become good friends, and whom in social settings I am happy to put my arms around. But to the chair or dean who is serious about gender equality in the workplace, I commend  the handshake. I realize this sounds crotchety and old-fashioned -- and it is true that I also resent strangers using my first name -- but I object to the prevailing culture of the hug. The handshake is, in my view, the best way to communicate greeting, congratulation, and good will among colleagues.

Consider this: when I had passed the arduous third-year review process at a small university with a nationally-recruited faculty better than most of its students deserve, my female colleagues came to my office one by one and shook my hand. Some then asked, "May I hug you?" By contrast, my senior male colleagues ignored the right hand I stuck out in front of me, and enfolded me in the embrace known as a hug. They were  people of good will, whose feelings I did not wish to hurt, and so I said nothing.

It is not so long ago that job candidates at this institution were routinely taken to the Playboy club, but that does not happen nowadays, and my first hint that my gender might matter to someone had come only halfway through my first term. A student having made unspecified complaints about my class, the chair, a self-proclaimed "recovering sexist" asked the senior woman in the department to talk to me, declaring, "This is one for the knitting circle." One day when four department women were heading out together, we twice encountered male colleagues who blanched and turned tail. The new chair saw two of us discussing grading practices and asked jovially, "What are you girls chatting about?"

What does this all add up to? Maybe nothing. My colleagues and the new chair supported my work and were kind to my family. My constant feelings of insecurity as the tenure decision approached were shared by a male colleague on the same timetable in another department. How much should I read into the fact that a window office went to a man junior to me, supposedly because I was out of town for the summer when it opened up? I don't know -- but I do know that I carefully considered what I might lose by insisting on my precedence.

And I know I never had the courage to say anything about the hugs. The gender problems in the department came to the fore when a senior colleague's wife suspected him of having an affair with a graduate student, and demanded that he no longer work with her. Despite the fact that her thesis could not be properly supervised without him, the department -- I heard indirectly, since everything took place behind closed doors -- acquiesced in the demand, and worked out a deal that gave the student an additional year of funding and arranged for her to work long-distance with a comparable scholar at another institution. The department further agreed -- hearsay again -- that the man in question would never again work with female graduate students.

Naturally, the graduate bulletin was not revised, but this would mean that only men could be admitted to focus on a certain period in history, and that women who came to the department hoping to have this eminent scholar on their committee would be disappointed. I was outraged, but my senior female colleague advised me to keep quiet, since I did not yet have tenure, and the matter was never discussed in a full department meeting. Furthermore, the student herself, although an experienced lawyer, told me that she did not want to hurt her former advisor by making a fuss: the same mentality that kept me from objecting to those awkward, unnecessary hugs.

Chairs and deans who are serious about gender equality: I commend to you the handshake. From brief and frosty to warm and two-handed, the handshake is capable of expressing any feeling that should be expressed between colleagues.

Bio

Coral Hughes, who is writing under a pseudonym, teaches history at a research university.

 

 

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